By Liz Hazelton
Last updated at 4:01 PM on 07th May 2009
Taliban fighters are reportedly using terrified civilians as human shields today as fierce fighting tore through Pakistan's north-west frontier.
Militants blocked roads with rocks and trees as the the army stepped up a ferocious ground and air assault.
The military had relaxed a blanket curfew in the area, which should have allowed many thousands to escape the Swat Valley, the frontline in a bloody conflict between extremists and the government.
But witnesses said civilians were forced to dodge blockades as well as bullets as the Taliban resorted to increasingly desperate tactics.
Ayaz Khan, 39, from the Kanju area of Swat, said he had attempted to flee with his family by car but found that the road was blocked by rocks, boulders and tree trunks.
He was forced to turn back. 'I am helpless, frustrated and worried for my family,' he said in a phone call.
Pakistan soldiers have killed at least 80 Taliban fighters during the two-day offensive in the north-west frontier.
The two-pronged attack in Swat and in neighbouring Buner province was launched on Tuesday, pounding the regions with mortars and artillery fire.
On Wednesday, Taliban reinforcements poured down from their mountain hideouts in a bid to beat back the onslaught as a spokesman declared any peace deal was over.
As fighting spread through the area, thousands of men, women and children fled Mingora, the Swat capital, fearing an imminent major military operation.
At least 38,000 refugees have already left but the government believes that figure could reach 800,000.
'It is an all-out war there. Rockets are landing everywhere,' said Laiq Zada, a 33-year old who fled the valley on Tuesday and was now in a government-run tent camp out of the danger zone.
'We have with us the clothes on our bodies and a hope in the house of God. Nothing else.'
'I do not have any destination. I only have an aim - to escape from here,' said Afzal Khan, 65, who fled with his wife and nine children.
'It is like doomsday here. It is like hell.'
There are no official figures on civilian casualties though the Taliban claim more than 100 people have died.
At least ten soldiers were killed and another nine wounded in clashes with militants.
A Pakistan intelligence official said helicopters and mortar teams were pounding militant positions in Mingora, which is 80 miles from the country's capital Islamabad, and other parts of Swat.
'The situation is very tense there. Taliban are present at the homes of local residents,' he said.
'They are also present at strategic positions. They are using light weapons to ambush troops,'
The clashes follow the collapse of a three-month-old truce in Swat that was widely criticised in the West as a surrender to the Taliban.
Under the agreement, militants were given control of the valley, which has a population of 1.6 to 1.7 million and were allowed to impose Sharia law.
But the peace broke down after fighters attempted to seize control of neighbouring Buner.
It is unclear if this week's offensive is the start of a major operation to drive back the Taliban.
There have, however, been reports of government troops pouring into the region on trucks.
A Taliban spokesman said the Swat peace pact was over.
'The situation is very bad. They're using all sort of force against us. Full-fledged war has begun and our fighters are putting up resistance,' Muslim Khan said.
'The military have already killed 100 women and children, about 150 injured, now in Mingora..How can we follow the agreement with them?'
He added the Taliban had control of 90 per cent of the valley.
The Swat Taliban are estimated to have up to 7,000 fighters against some 15,000 troops who until recent days had been confined to their barracks under the peace deal.
The army action has pleased America, where Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari yesterday met with Barack Obama and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.
'Pakistan's democracy will deliver,' Zardari told his hosts in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the military offensive against the Taliban was a positive sign.
'I'm actually quite impressed by the actions the Pakistani government is now taking,' she said.
'I think that action was called for, and action has been forthcoming.'
Addressing a congressional committee earlier this week, Mr Obama's special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke said Pakistan was not a failed state but added that it does face enormous challenges and needed U.S. support.
Mr Holbrooke also emphasised the importance of a stable Pakistan.
He told the House Foreign Affairs Committee: 'Our most vital national security interests are at stake.'
'We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies.
'We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement.'
But experts on the region have questioned if the two governments can deliver on any promises.
Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: 'What they (the US administration) are hoping for and what they are likely to get are two different things.
'The goal in theory would be to get much closer co-operation between Pakistan and Afghanistan in fighting the Taliban.
'The president can ask for that and will probably get some kind of pledge.
'But Karzai is a relatively weak leader with a weak government and security force and Pakistan faces a major crisis.'
He added: 'No-one has any illusions about immediate progress. This is not a meeting that will produce dramatic change, but it can lead to steps forward.'
Pakistan is bracing for its biggest ever displacement of people, as many as 800,000, as a military offensive against the Taliban in Swat looks imminent.
Convoys of military vehicles carrying troops and artillery were seen heading towards Swat as authorities in Mardan, the second biggest city in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), search for sites for camps for people uprooted by fighting.
'Initially, we were estimating that 100,000 to 200,000 people would leave their homes but now we are expecting displacement of 600,000 to 800,000,' Khalid Khan Umerzai, commissioner of the Mardan division in NWFP, said.
'This will be the biggest displacement of Pakistanis since independence,' he said, adding about 1.6 million people live in Swat.
In February, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated up to 600,000 people could be uprooted because of fighting in Pakistan's northwest.
Mardan division is the main staging point for people fleeing the fighting in Malakand where Swat is located, and the government has set up three camps for the uprooted people and is opening three more.
Umerzai said 35,000 people had been registered in the three camps but only a handful of them were living there as most had found shelter with relatives in Mardan and elsewhere. Many more were unregistered.
'If the conflict lasts longer, then we expect those living outside camps to come to the camps and that will be a huge problem,' Umerzai said.
He said the provincial government was short of funds and seeking help from the central government for the growing number of displaced.
On Marden's outskirts, a tent village has been set up with the help of the United Nations and international aid agencies on sprawling ground levelled for construction of a housing complex.
About 350 families are living in tents provided by the UNHCR in the Sheikh Shehzad camp, while a large number of people were lined up outside to get registered.
'I could bring just one blanket and a few clothes for my children with me,' said Omar Bacha, a resident of Mingora, who arrived in the camp on Wednesday, as nearby his seven-year-old son cuddled his shirtless younger brother.
'We are ruined,' said bearded Behroz Khan.
'Taliban are on the ground, helicopters are in the sky, we are caught in between.'
At the back of the camp, poor women, some carrying infants in their laps, were sitting on the ground waiting impatiently for their turn to be registered, which would enable them to get free food and other basic supplies.
Food was being cooked in about 20 cauldrons nearby while labourers dug ditches to lay sanitation pipes.
'While we cannot give them the comfort of their home, we will try to make it as easy for them as possible,' Fikret Akcura, the top UN official in Pakistan, said in a statement.
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